Should we directly proceed to Munnar or stay at Cochin for a day or two was the foremost question in our mind when we were planning to visit Munnar. Frankly, I was not very keen to stay at Cochin and wanted to proceed directly to Munnar. My partner was also of the same view. Our plan was simple, we needed to book tickets on a night train which reaches Cochin or Ernakulam, which is the nearest major railhead for Munnar next morning. It so happened that while making railway reservations from Mangalore to Cochin we could not get any reservations in evening or night trains which would reach Cochin by next day morning or afternoon and from there our plan was to hire a car and reach Munnar. But fate had some other plans for us! We could manage tickets only in an afternoon train which reaches Cochin late at night. We had no other options and booked the tickets for this train. With this change, our original plan was required little tweaking as we did not want to start the journey to Munnar in the dead of the night and miss the opportunity to enjoy this picturesque road trip in daylight. Thus to avoid the hectic schedule of reaching Cochin late at night and again proceeding to Munnar the next morning we decided to halt at Cochin for a day and explore it. I must confess now that halting for a day at ‘Kochi-the queen of Arabian Sea’ was the best thing happened to us.
Although the scheduled time for Trivandrum Express to reach Ernakulum was 11.45 PM, it reached there around 1.00 AM, the delay was due to heavy late monsoon rains on the way. Fortunately, there was no rain when we alighted at Ernakulam town railway station. We took an auto from the station and reached our pre-booked hotel just 5 KMs from the station by 1.45 AM. Feeling very sleepy, we quickly freshened up, just crashed into the bed. Next day after breakfast, we booked a cab for local sightseeing and left the hotel around 9.30 AM. We wanted to follow most common itinerary due to the paucity of time Our first destination for the day was the 16th century Cochin Jewish Synagogue which is also known as Paradesi or Mattancherry Synagogue. But wait before that we needed to conquer the huge traffic snarl at M.G. Road and I must say dodging and race driver like skills of our cabby saved the day for us and he (and we) felt relieved after reaching the quiet environs as we neared the synagogue!
Cochin has always been known for its spice business and the aroma of these spices could be one of the reasons that might have pulled the earliest foreign traders to its shores. Jews were one of the earliest communities to recognize this opportunity and got involved in the spice trade as early as 4th Century AD and thus controlled a major portion of this spice trade very early. A large number of them came and settled in Cochin for the business and over a period of time built several synagogues. The present synagogue was built under the protection of King of Mattancherry when the early synagogues were destroyed during Portuguese persecution of local Jews during that period. A bell tower or clock tower was also constructed adjacent to this synagogue. The synagogue is full of antiquities and boosts of several rare artifacts which were gifted to it by notable persons from all walks of life. Ok, without delving into history anymore I must say the place is quiet, in fact very quiet. Notwithstanding the simple architecture of the synagogue, the importance of this place can be gauged from the fact that it is the only one of the seven synagogues still in use in Kerala. The street on which we were walking is called the Jews Street and houses some homes where the Jews who choose India as their home still reside. Many shops selling antiquities adorn this street.
By the time we finished our visit to the Jew town, the Sun was smiling right over our heads. Hence, we decided to treat ourselves with a lemonade break at the Jew Street. No, the lemonade was not being sold by any Jew!
Our next stop was nearby Mattancherry Palace. This palace is also popularly known as Dutch Palace. The palace was originally built by the Portuguese in traditional Kerala style architecture with a courtyard in the middle of it. Later the palace was gifted to the Raja of Cochin. The Dutch extensively repaired the place in later years and thus the name Dutch Palace. The palace boasts of a brilliant collection of 17th and 18th-century Murals depicting different facts from the epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata as well as revered Gods of the Hindu faith like Guruvayoorappan. The palace also has an Art gallery where the life-size portraits of members of the Royal family of Cochin could be seen. We thoroughly liked this trip to Mattancherry Palace. I think visiting historical sites more would make history lessons of the school kids more interesting. Anyway by the time we finished our second lesson of history for the day by 2.00 PM and were a little tired. So we decided to take rest for some time and a nearby eatery was perfect for it. There is a ferry service near the palace which takes tourists for a round trip to Fort Cochin. The fairly long serpentine queue was enough to discourage us from enjoying this service. Well, you can’t have all in a single visit. After relaxing a bit over a cup of refreshing coffee the driver asked us where to next, sir. I told just take us to Fort Cochin. A few minutes of the drive would have taken place and our nostrils experienced heavy duty smell of all kinds of spices. We could see that we were passing through the famous spice market of Mattancherry. After the very short drive, we reached Fort Cochin.
After reaching Fort Cochin I asked the driver where is the Fort. And a big surprise was in store for us! This is it! The driver informed while parking the vehicle. What? I mean I could see only parking area in front and the Arabian Sea behind. I thought he didn’t understand and explained again that I was looking for the Fort of Cochin. But there is no fort as such and this whole area is called Fort Cochin or Fort Kochi, his already big black eyes became bigger as he informed us the same with all the confidence! I didn’t argue anymore and followed the other visitors. I asked Google; here also the answer was in negative. It further informed that this area was used to fortified so the name Fort Kochi, few! I could not prevent smiling on my ignorance. And yes thanked Google for clarifying! But whatever, the place is really beautiful. Walking along the promenade along the Arabian sea in the evening is great. Soon we got the first glimpse of the gigantic Chinese fishing nets. Later we could see many such nets along the coast. The whole set up was just awesome. These nets presented a very good background for selfie hungry tourists!
There are several shops selling fresh fish lined up along the promenade in front of these nets and they are cheap but I could not see any restaurants nearby these shops. Sellers claimed they are selling the fish caught by these giant Chinese fishing nets. Really! I wondered because it felt impossible for the fixed Chinese nets to catch that many varieties of fishes, in large numbers just at the coast. Later the seller agreed that these fishes are brought here by boats from deep sea! Nevertheless, I found them fresh, no issues here. I asked how I can eat the fish when I could see no restaurants nearby. The fish seller by then impressed by my common sense, Ok-Ok I would not boast anymore, sheepishly explained that we could purchase the fish from his shop and there is a restaurant nearby this place where if I pay 100 rupees the fish would be cooked as I wish. Well, not a bad deal, I thought. I purchased a fresh mid-sized Red Snapper for Rs.150 and went along with him to his restaurant. In 15 minutes the whole Red Snapper was on the table, spicy fried with a chilled coke, a fine lunch indeed. After a sumptuous lunch came back to the promenade and sat on one of the benches placed there, facing the sea. Watching small fishing boats side by side much larger Ships sailing in and out of nearby Cochin seaport and enjoying the cool sea breeze of the evenings was an experience in itself.
Having rested there for quite some time, we were recharged and decided to explore the place a bit more. The Sun had also become very mild by this time which made our walk to nearby St. Francis Church delightful! Walking past the Bishop’s House we reached the St. Francis church. This church is believed to be first church built in India and body of famous explorer Vasco Da Gama who discovered the sea route to India was originally buried there before being taken to Lisbon 15 years later. Nearby the church is the Dutch Cemetery which is believed to be the oldest cemetery in India. It remains closed most of the time and opened only on valid request made to keepers of nearby St. Francis church. The whole area was reminiscent of a rich past.
I must mention here that this part was relatively quieter than the place where Chinese fishing nets are located. The road further leads to a small beachside. It was a nice place to see the sunset and bustling port of Cochin which is located just opposite the Fort Cochin. After spending quite some time even after sunset there we slowly walked back to the parking area.
We returned to our hotel after that and were unanimous in our view that it requires at least one full day to discover and enjoy at Fort Cochin.